“Rejoice!” so we are told today. It’s a directive we find in two of the lessons, the canticle, and our communion anthem. It’s not a word we often use in our common speech. When is the last time any of us said, “Rejoice!” to someone? Like, Rejoice, I just got a promotion at my job. Yet to accentuate this theme we find rose colored vestments and a pink candle on the Advent wreathe.
Rejoice! It’s a word that means to show great joy, delight, or happiness. One might wonder why Zephaniah, one of the gloomiest prophets of the Old Testament might find cause to be joyful. He is writing in the seventh century before Christ during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews, a time of constant terrorism when fear ruled the land. Yet he ends this passage with a pure song of joy. The Apostle Paul also brings a joy-filled letter of thanksgiving for the community of Philippi. “Rejoice in the Lord always” Paul writes “and again I will say, Rejoice!”
But then strange John the Baptist throws a wet blanket on all this rejoicing. Imagine the crowds dancing down to the river Jordan to his shouts of “You brood of vipers!” I’ll bet they didn’t see that coming. He’s calling them venomous snakes! Not a way to win friends and certainly not a way to attract followers.
What a paradox we get on this Third Sunday of Advent: colorful rose accoutrements and words of joy and then a tirade from the Baptist. That’s not the kind of message most of us would flock to hear. Throughout the history of the church, the hellfire and damnation brand of Christianity has been used to threaten, chastise, and scare people. Is that really what we have here in John?
John was perhaps the wildest and craziest prophet. Listen again to his ranting: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!” Then after another tirade about burning in an unquenchable fire, the Gospel ends with these words: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Good News? Really? Well, actually, it’s there if we take a closer look. When he answers the crowds’ question about how to live in the demanding present—What then shall we do?—he’s basically telling us: simply live. “If you are a tax collector, don’t cheat as you collect taxes. If you are a soldier, be a good soldier and do your duty. If you’ve got a lot, share it with someone who doesn’t have much and be happy with what you’ve got.”
This was both amazing and reasonable advice from someone whose own response to life was to retreat to the wilderness, live among the beasts and eat locusts. Simply live. Live simply, John is advising. Get out of bed and go to work; do your job well; be good to one another; take care of those who go without. Do all these simple things knowing that God is working as well and is coming to dwell among us in the person of Jesus.
As easy as all this may seem and, in spite of the call today to “rejoice,” the reality is that this is a season when many people feel isolation, melancholy, even despair more than ever.
In every city across America are people who literally have no place to call “home” and families with children make up the fastest-growing segment of that population. There are hungry children, refugees from Latin drug lords, and people struggling just to keep their homes and put food on the table. The pandemic has waged havoc on the emotional, mental and physical health of so many. It has generated a culture of huge division.
Then there is the elderly woman who lived for 50 years in her home but lost her husband and whose children live far away, or the elderly gentleman lives in a nursing home and has no family. There is the couple on the verge of separation or divorce, who are feeling so very estranged. There is the gay or transgender person who has just come out and wants to be home for Christmas but fears judgment and rejection. There are those faced with a deep sense of isolation during this season. There are many, many people who have no reason to “rejoice” and they may live in our neighborhood, or they may be sitting in the pew here this morning.
What is to be the source of their hope? It will only be found in someone who will be kind enough to shine light into their darkness. The reason Zephaniah and Paul are telling us to rejoice is because God has reached out to us, come to us, taken on flesh and become one of us so that we might become more like God. And we become more like God when we become that light in their darkness.
Times are not all that different than for those to those to whom Zephaniah preached. If old Zephaniah were to visit America in this season of Advent, I think he would be saddened to see how many people have closed their minds and hearts to the genuine pain of the world. He would likely rally us—as John the Baptist would—to join God in the work of caring for those who at this time need compassion, acceptance, and love.
John was clearly an agitator and it was Oscar Wild who said: “Agitators are a set of interfering people who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent among them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.”
Today we are privy to the agitators of a prophetic, albeit uncomfortable voice in the Gospel sowing seeds of discontent among us where we may have become complacent or allowed too many distractions to interfere with John’s prescription to Live simply. Simply live. If his words have moved us to do what we can to make life better for those who live in darkness and care for those who need a reason to hope, to be the incarnational expressions of God’s grace –a shining light in their lives—then we can and should, indeed, rejoice.